Alexan­der Wein­stein is the author of Chil­dren of the New World, a provoca­tive col­lec­tion of sci­ence fic­tion sto­ries of the near-future. With the release of the book this Tues­day, Alexan­der is guest blog­ging for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on The ProsenPeo­ple.

I was twen­ty-two years old, and fin­ish­ing my BA in cre­ative writ­ing at Naropa University’s Jack Ker­ouac School of Dis­em­bod­ied Poet­ics, when I first met Reb Zalman.

The Ker­ouac School was a fan­tas­tic pro­gram, one which taught me to take risks in my writ­ing and revealed the inter­sec­tion between spir­i­tu­al­i­ty and lit­er­a­ture. There was a free com­mu­ni­ty class on The Search for Enlight­en­ment, led by a man named Rab­bi Zal­man. The idea of learn­ing from a rab­bi was intim­i­dat­ing. For one — in spite of the fact that as a lit­tle boy I had accom­pa­nied my father to hear my grand­fa­ther sing as the can­tor of his small syn­a­gogue — I was nev­er a very reli­gious per­son. And sec­ond­ly, I wor­ried that Reb Zal­man would be judg­men­tal, and stern­ly rab­bini­cal. But, I was also young, search­ing for answers (in the best Tal­mu­dic tra­di­tion), and drawn to the top­ic. And so I went. Zal­man was in his late sev­en­ties at the time, and sur­pris­ing­ly laid back in his black shirt and yarmulke, his face beam­ing with warmth. He wel­comed us to the ses­sion, and then asked us to stand up and walk the space leisurely. 

As you walk, I want you to look for enlight­en­ment,” he instruct­ed. Ask every­one you meet: Are you Mok­sha?’” And so we walked around the room, and with every per­son we passed, we asked the same ques­tion: Are you Moksha?” 

Mok­sha,” it turns out, was not a per­son, but rather a state of being. I expe­ri­enced two spe­cif­ic emo­tions dur­ing this expe­ri­ence. The first was that I didn’t believe myself to be enlight­ened, nor to have the answer of enlight­en­ment for those who came ask­ing for mok­sha. More impor­tant­ly, as I watched myself search­ing the faces, I real­ized I’d been search­ing for enlight­en­ment since I was six­teen. I’d been fas­ci­nat­ed by the idea of spir­i­tu­al lib­er­a­tion and find­in­gen­light­en­ment. With every new per­son I asked about mok­sha, I under­stood that this was how I’d been liv­ing: I was look­ing every­where for the secrets of spir­i­tu­al­i­ty, and con­stant­ly search­ing for the wise men and women who had a grasp on lib­er­a­tion. Lit­tle did I know, I was in a room with a man who was as close to enlight­en­ment as I’d ever meet.

So,” he asked us, putting his hands togeth­er and smil­ing, Did you find it?”

After that first ses­sion, I enrolled in Rab­bi Zalman’s Intro to Judaism class. It wasn’t my inter­est in the sub­ject mat­ter that com­pelled me — I sim­ply want­ed to be in the rabbi’s pres­ence. He was a wis­dom keep­er in the truest sense of the word, and had prayed with all faiths. From Native Amer­i­can cer­e­monies to Hin­du deities, from the great Bud­dhist mas­ters to his ency­clo­pe­dic knowl­edge of Judaism, he believed in a human spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. And it was through his belief in inter-spir­i­tu­al­i­ty that he opened the Jew­ish faith to me. He shared wis­dom tales of the old rab­bis, and was able to unpack the Old Tes­ta­ment, often agree­ing with our cri­tiques, know­ing that it was through our ques­tion­ing that we might bet­ter come to under­stand the sacred. With­in his laugh­ter, which rolled from him nat­u­ral­ly, I began to under­stand what it meant to be holy, and in turn, I grew inter­est­ed in the spir­i­tu­al wealth of Judaism. 

Reb Zal­man wasn’t a cre­ative writ­ing teacher, but near­ly two decades lat­er, I rec­og­nize his humor with­in my writ­ing. In my recent col­lec­tion, Chil­dren of the New World, there’s a sto­ry enti­tled Mok­sha. The main char­ac­ter, Abe, is engaged in a spir­i­tu­al search, and he trav­els to Nepal to find elec­tron­ic enlight­en­ment, which they have on the cheap in Kath­man­du. He’s look­ing for an easy spir­i­tu­al fix, and every­where he goes, he’s hop­ing to find the secret. It was Zal­man who first taught me the word mok­sha, and who helped me under­stand the humor in Abe’s (and my own) search. Like most humans, I still long for things, still won­der about enlight­en­ment, and I work to cul­ti­vate peace, hap­pi­ness, and love with those around me. In my sto­ries, I attempt a sim­i­lar feat: to write char­ac­ters who have good hearts, who hurt in the ways we all do, who love as best they can, and who, in their strug­gles, are seek­ing to make things bet­ter. Whether it be enlight­en­ment, hap­pi­ness, or love, we are all search­ing for ways to improve our lives. And there’s a great cos­mic humor in this search, one which Zal­man under­stood as he watched us wan­der­ing that small room at Naropa so many years ago, ful­ly enjoy­ing the sacred dance we were reenacting. 

Read Part II of Alexan­der Wein­stein’s Encoun­ters with Rab­bi Zal­man: Rit­u­als for Peo­ple Healers

Alexan­der Wein­stein is the direc­tor of the Martha’s Vine­yard Insti­tute of Cre­ative Writ­ing. He is the recip­i­ent of a Sus­tain­able Arts Foun­da­tion Award, and his sto­ries have received the Lamar York, Gail Crump, and New Mil­len­ni­um Prizes. He is an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of cre­ative writ­ing at Siena Heights Uni­ver­si­ty and leads fic­tion work­shops in the Unit­ed States and Europe.

Relat­ed Content:

Alexan­der Wein­stein is the author of Uni­ver­sal Love and Chil­dren of the New World, which was named a notable book of the year by The New York Times, NPR, and Elec­tric Lit­er­a­ture. He’s a recip­i­ent of a Sus­tain­able Arts Foun­da­tion Award, and his sto­ries have appeared in Best Amer­i­can Sci­ence Fic­tion & Fan­ta­sy and Best Amer­i­can Exper­i­men­tal Writ­ing.